The Beautiful Day

Today is a beautiful day. In Minnesota, you feel guilty for staying inside on such a beautiful day (even if you’re sick, you at least try to sit in the sun). And here I am, sitting inside writing, feeling guilty. Mind you, I’ve spent much of the day outside. I’ve been for two bike rides, done some gardening (such as it is here in April), spent some time birding at the river, and also did a little birding in the yard.

I think the first bike ride was the highlight of the day. I didn’t get out on my new bicycle much last year, and I’m bound to make up for it this year. While riding up the river road biking path, I saw a very large bird swooping low—vulture or eagle? I lost the one that swooped, but when I glanced up, I saw what was clearly a turkey vulture soaring, soon joined by the other. I was pleased, as I’ve already seen an eagle this year, and the vulture was new to my year list.

After biking at a brisk pace for a distance not quite far enough to make my legs rubbery, we stopped and rested and chatted for a bit. Before long I found myself distracted by the birds I saw flitting through the trees, and try as I might I couldn’t focus on conversation. So I decided to go to the river later and do a bit of birding (I didn’t have my binoculars with me on the bike ride—why do I ever go anywhere without binoculars in spring?)

After our equally brisk ride back, I rested for a bit, but the beautiful day and the call of the birds lured me out before long. I rode down to the river, picked a spot, sat down, and waited for the birds to reappear after the disturbance of my arrival. Sure enough, after about 20 minutes, birds started coming around. Not a lot of them—it was mid-afternoon, not the best time for birding. Still and yet, I saw my first yellow-rumped warbler of the year, as well as an eastern phoebe. Also a northern flicker, ruby-crowned kinglet, and I heard a red-bellied woodpecker laughing. Slowly floating down the river was a group of northern shovelers.

Earlier today, I was outside at the cactus, uncovering it (again—after I had to recover it mid last week for our winter storm). I could almost feel it stretching towards the sun. I got the bulk of it done, and hope to finish the rest yet tonight (it stays light until after 8 p.m. now!). I also uncovered (again) the rhubarb, which is much further along than it was five days ago when I covered it back up. Rhubarb bread is around the corner (with cinnamon and nuts—yum).

I’ve had a few spring migrants in the backyard. For the last 10 days, I’ve had three fox sparrows, which have totally captivated me. They’ve been here pretty much all day for those 10 days, and I’ve been quite diligent about putting out fresh water and seed of various sorts (and also graham crackers). This is a particularly important time to feed birds, as often their common sources of foods (insects, buds, seeds) haven’t arrived yet or are sparse.

Several days ago, as I was watching the fox sparrows under the dogwoods, spouse came up, pointed out the window and asked, “What’s that?” to a bird that was about three feet away from my nose. A beautiful male purple finch! I’m glad I saw him then, because I haven’t seen him since. I have house finches quite often, but the purple finch is rare in my yard.

Robins are plentiful this spring, but I’m still awaiting the return of the house wren.

Do you think if I unplug the heated birdbath, winter will return?

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Spring in Minnesota

March in Minnesota is often mostly winter, but this year the official spring actually feels like spring. Today I went outside in a light jacket to put out birdseed and fresh water. It was so nice out, I found myself picking up winter trash and cleaning up around the compost bin. I moved a stepping stone to the muddy area, and rescued and cleaned a water dish frozen out over winter. Then I started to pull the leaf mulch off the rhubarb until I got to a layer of ice. Time to let the sun do its work. Honestly, there’s just not that much you can do in a Minnesota yard in March.

And then I glanced at the south wall of the house. The cacti are coming back to life! I had worried about this a bit over winter, especially with the polar vortex. I didn’t mulch them as well as usual last fall (because I mauled them the previous spring when I was raking off the mulch) and feared they wouldn’t survive polar vortex and record-breaking February snowfall. But a glance showed me otherwise: Several pads were rising up—I love this miracle of spring.

In a wee bit of awe, I went to check out the full patch (I’m trying to cover the south wall of the house). A bit more mulch than I remembered. I found a twig and used it to gently move leaves off the cactus pads. Most of the pads are still flat on the ground (they seem to almost melt in winter; the first year I was sure they were dead, and was shocked as anything when they came back even bigger and stronger the next spring). And a couple of years after that, they flowered, and continued to spread. When they started to cover the sidewalk, I clipped one off and set it in a bit of a scrape in the rocks. “Back to nature,” I thought. Indeed back to nature: It took root and grew that very summer and started its own vigorous plant the next spring. That’s when I got the idea of a cactus bed on the south wall of the house. It’s coming along nicely.

Also in the land of spring: The cardinals have paired off. No more large groups of them coming and hanging out for much of the day. Ditto for the robins. The juncos are now few and far between. I miss the groups, but the trade-off is worth it in song: Yes, the birds are singing again! They certainly haven’t hit their peak yet, but the occasional robin song and chickadee dee are definite signs of spring, along with the frequent drumming of the downy woodpeckers. There will come a time later in summer when the cardinal calling at 4:30 in the morning does not make me smile, but in March, the birds are the vocal heralds of spring. I cannot help but love them.

I saw my first chipmunk of the season today. An immediate flash of pure affection. So cute. And a few hours later, after I had put out birdseed, I also remembered what little hoovers they are. One chipmunk can clean out a seed tray in record time. They put squirrels to shame. Chipmunks have huge cheek pouches where they store the seed they vacuum up. Then they hie off to their cache, deposit their feast-for-later, and go back to the banquet for more.

Nature. Wily Nature. It makes my heart sing.

Backyard Report: Hops 1, Rabbits 8

I finished harvesting the hops today. A small crop this year, possibly due to rabbits (all of a sudden several vines died, and I wondered if a rabbit had chewed through the bottoms) or possibly to neglect.

Neglect? Yes. Unintended, but In May, I got a case of eczema on my hands. It didn’t get better and then it got infected and I missed the entire planting season. An unplanned experiment: I basically did nothing in the backyard this summer. No weeding, pruning, mowing, deadheading, or harvesting (excepting one catnip harvest).

I have felt guilty all summer. My backyard looks like weeds and shrubs run amok (which it is). But here is what I experienced:

More monarchs than I’ve seen in any year before. Possibly because I had a lot more milkweed. I’ve been trying to get more milkweed in my yard for several years, and this year I had a bumper crop (some even in the front yard!). I love the milkweed because of monarchs, but also because it reminds me of being a kid, finding milkweed pods in late summer and pulling them apart and blowing out the seeds. I still enjoy doing it—every bit as fun as blowing the fluff off dandelions—and your neighbors don’t mind so much with milkweed.

My lack of care didn’t hurt the cactus at all. They had a mighty bloom, and continue to spread. I also continue to spread them, as they encroach on the sidewalk (they are prolific!): Cut off the pad at the joint, take it to a different part of the gravel side-garden bordering the south side of the house, scrape away the stones, set down the pad, pour a few teaspoons of water over it (or not), and forget it forevermore (except to check on it and look at it frequently, which helps ignored plants grow).

The rabbits have been quite fun to watch this summer, and in July there were several babies. After a week away in early August, on our return, I noted only one of the young rabbits left nosing around the yard, and so it has remained. Until tonight, when something startled the backyard denizens: First, the young rabbit shoots out from under the dogwoods, heading east. Seconds later a smaller rabbit follows its path. Two little rabbits! And I consider myself such a good observer of nature….

And speaking of the dogwoods, they have become hugely overgrown and are taking up nearly a quarter of the backyard. But I think by no coincidence, I also added five new birds to my yard list: ovenbird (be still my heart!), Swainson’s thrush, gray-cheeked thrush, Connecticut warbler, and eastern wood pewee. All sighted in, under, or around the overgrown unsightly dogwoods.

Saving the best for last: A few weeks ago I was writing at the table in the kitchen, and I glanced out the window (this was early evening), and just winding around the corner of the flower bed, a—what are you?? My mind scrambled, searching. Big (not squirrel or rabbit) with a snout like a pig! What?? And it was white (not all white, but whiteish).

This is an animal I have never seen before, and I am seeing it here, right in my back yard in Minneapolis. I could only think it might be an opossum, even though in my mind they were brown and much much smaller.

It moseyed around the flower bed. after which I moseyed to google, to find out I had indeed had an opossum wend its way through my untended yard. This, to me, is the royal flush of urban wildlife.

Maybe won’t clean up my backyard so much come spring after all.

Leaping into Autumn

How’d that happen? It seemed like it was all summer all the time, and then I turned around and it was fall. I think it was the freeze warning a couple of days ago. We didn’t frost in Minneapolis, but lots of other parts of Minnesota did.

The frost put me in mind of the herbs that I want to harvest before freeze—rosemary, feverfew, catnip, lemongrass. I went to grab a basket for the fresh-cut herbs, but all my baskets seemed to be full with pretty much already dried herbs. Yikes! I needed to take care of these herbs before harvesting yet more.

First, I had to gather things together. The cat seemed to have had a bit of a heyday in there swatting at the herbs (he is particularly fond of the lemongrass, for some reason—much more so than catnip, interestingly enough). He also seems to have squashed my drying calendula (which I realized was pretty much completely dried since most of it was decimated into wee bits). Sigh. Luckily, I still have some left from last year and as well as plenty from my herbal friend in California.

I sorted yarrow, lemongrass, sage, rosemary, catnip, and lemon balm. For cleaning, I started with the lemon balm and then did the catnap. These two got combined, and I poured organic vodka over them. In six weeks, I will have a wonderfully effective mild sleep aid (just a small sip before bed). Also good for anxiety and upset stomach.

Next I cleaned the yarrow. Then I sat and looked at my list and thought for awhile about what I wanted to do with the yarrow. I usually tincture it, but I have plenty of yarrow tincture on hand. So I cleaned the rosemary and added it to the yarrow (used the pestle to ground it up pretty well, especially the rosemary), and covered them with olive oil. This is a new combo I’ve not tried before, but it should be good for arthritis. And it should smell good (rosemary has many medicinal properties, but I think its sharp, happy-making aroma might be the most powerful).

Sage and lemongrass didn’t seem like a good combination to me, so they remain. I think I will keep the lemongrass to use in salves (it imparts a nice lemony scent), and perhaps use the sage primarily in its customary culinary role. (Sage dressing for Thanksgiving, anyone?)

When I saw all the clean-up I needed to do before harvest, I checked the weather for the next few days. The lowest prediction is 38 degrees, and then next week we climb back up to toy with the 70s. I decided that if the lemongrass, catnip, and rosemary had survived this far, they could wait until next week. But I did harvest the feverfew, because I have none in back-up (which really surprised me when I moved into almost panic mode while going through the pharmacopeia and coming up feverfewless).

Lots of autumnal signals outside my herbal obsessions: Last week I saw white-throated sparrows in the backyard, migrating south for the winter (not very far south—they overwinter in Iowa and the southern United States; one year I had a white-throated sparrow at my feeder throughout most of the winter, very exciting for a Minnesota birder). I also spotted a Tennessee warbler in my backyard a few days ago. Definitely migration season.

And of course the trees, the plants, the colors, the leaves. The trees closest to the Mississippi are starting to get serious color. A lot of trees in Minneapolis are still green, but the sugar maples are already fiery orange and bright red. Beautiful contrast to neighboring trees just starting to mosey into yellow.

No crunchy leaves underfoot yet. The best part of autumn is still to come.

Small Miracles

Yesterday when I was walking the yard, I noted a huge number of tiny red bugs (only slightly larger than pinheads) hanging around in clumps on the ground around the cactus and milkweed. I’m pretty sure they’re tiny box elder bugs. I am not particularly fond of box elder bugs and thought of spraying them with vinegar, but decided to let it go. They don’t bite or sting, and so far the numbers have been manageable, so I decided to wait and see.

Today when I went to check, they were gone. But I noticed that only for a moment, because my attention was captured by a yellow flower. Flowers. My prickly pear cactus is blooming! There are four flowers. But I think there might be a lot more (maybe 20!) to come—holy guacamole, the cactus is really taking off! The transplants from last year have all taken hold, and the transplants from this year are holding their own.

These are the things we do in Minnesota for entertainment. (Okay, maybe just a few of us. A lot of Minnesotans don’t even know that Minnesota is home to three kinds of cactus.) It gets so melty droopy in the winter, I am certain it won’t come back, but then it does.

June seems to be full of little miracles like this. Before I had any expectations or had even done a trimming, the rosebush produced a brilliant flame, stopping me in my tracks on the way out the door.

The lemon balm is flourishing (excellent with catnip as a sleep aid) and I must pick soon so I will get a second crop. The lemongrass that I got from a neighbor is also taking hold nicely (another good sleep aid). In fact, all of the plants that I either potted or planted seem to be doing quite well.

Yesterday I got a package in the mail. Several weeks ago, I asked my California friend if she had any fresh sage on hand. I had used up my winter store, and my sage plants were barely starting to come back. She did indeed have sage, but had just sent off a package (which included eucalyptus, which is even better than sage since I can’t grow it here) but she said she would include it next time.

A bit of time goes by and my sage plants are growing and turning green. But then they aren’t. They have been decimated by tiny bugs. I am heartbroken (perhaps an overstatement; annoyed might be more accurate). And then I get a package from my friend, and it is filled with sage. An abundance of sage. An embarrassment of sage. Baskets of sage. She is wise, my friend. Good timing.

Merely another June miracle.

The butterfly weed is coming up in the front yard (it will attract both monarch and swallowtail butterflies when it flowers). But the swamp milkweed in that same plot shows no sign of return (it was pretty weak last year after two years of attacks by swamp milkweed beetles; yes, there is a beetle specifically targeted to the swamp milkweed—nature is amazing, no?). But on the other hand, I noticed today five common milkweed plants in the side yard that I swear weren’t there yesterday (of course they must have been). A pleasant surprise.

I’ve found two odd plants growing in the side yard—they are about to flower, and I’ve no idea what they are. Flowers? Weeds? Or, perhaps, medicinal herbs (which could be in either of the aforementioned categories)? I need to wait a few more days to find out.

The currants are just starting to turn red. The peonies are done—done in by a rainstorm that came through just as they were peaking. This is the risk with peonies. Happily, a mere day or two before the storm, I asked a friend if she wanted to take some home with her (I can’t have them in the house because they are poisonous to cats), and she was happy to take a few. I like to think that maybe they’re still blooming.

End of Birding Frenzy; On to the Garden

May has turned into June, and my attention finally turns to gardening. While I was in the throes of birding in May, I thought perhaps I wouldn’t get any plants this year and merely tend the perennials. But then I remembered rosemary, and how much rosemary I use in so many things (cooking, of course, and I also add rosemary to many of my herbal concoctions—primarily for its taste and smell, but it also has some fine medicinal properties).

And my feverfew didn’t come back this year, which surprised me mightily. It was growing like a weed last year, even in the sidewalk cracks. This year, both the front and back are missing their feverfew. Rabbits? I do have (at least) two rabbits that spend a goodly amount of time in the yard. Mostly they seem to eat grass, dandelion, plantain, and clover. I wonder if they also favor feverfew.

So yesterday I went to the neighborhood plant store, and I got the rosemary (3) and feverfew (2—hoping it spreads like a weed again). And then I ran across the chamomile. I had decided not to grow chamomile this year—a lot of harvesting of those tiny flowers in the end didn’t even fill a pint jar. But I saw it on the shelf and I did the dangerous thing; I picked it up and smelled it. I smelled it and was back to the wonderful feeling I had while I was harvesting the chamomile last year. Also, homegrown chamomile even dried—no, especially dried—smells so much better than any I’ve found at a co-op or herb store.

So I bought the chamomile. And then I ran across parsley, and parsley (especially curly parsley) is one of my favorite things to eat right from the garden. It has always tasted like bright freshness to me and I believe it has the power to completely change one’s mood or viewpoint around.

So I got two parsley plants (one curly, one traditional—for research on my mood/viewpoint hypothesis).

And then I realized I really needed thyme. Not a lot, but especially for cooking, it’s nice to have a thyme plant. A thyme plant is added to the cart.

I had not planned to buy calendula. I had specifically decided not to buy calendula, as I still have a goodly amount left from last year, plus my herbal friend in California sent me even more. But then I saw the plants, and they have such bright orangey flowers, and they are so happy-making in the backyard. (Also very good for soothing the skin.) I thought getting only two was a good compromise.

I also got a bright red geranium to sit by the back door (this was in my original plan, even before the rosemary was added to the list). There is something about a geranium that makes me smile. I’m not sure if it’s the color, the smell, or its splashy sassiness. But really, now I think about it, I think I love the red geranium because it’s my mom’s favorite flower. So add a bit of love and tradition to that splashy sassiness.

I’m happy to report that nearly all of the plants have been planted, with just three left for tomorrow. I’m even happier to report that I’m ever-so-glad I changed my mind about the plants. Getting my hands in the dirt, working with the plants, the smells, the textures—oh yes. Why did I think I didn’t want to do this? I get to water and harvest and talk to my plants all summer.

I haven’t given up birding, just to be clear. I still have the binoculars on the table beside me. It’s just that now, a few other things can take up more room inside my brain. And June is for the garden.

June Reprise

June was your basic lazy summer month. I read 11 books (4 each fiction and nonfiction and 3 poetry). The theme for the month was award-winning books (any award will do). There was a pinch towards the end of June as I tried to finish up multiple books at once (the one drawback of having a monthly reading theme), but I managed to pull it off (even though I perhaps gave short shrift to the last 100 pages of Slaves in the Family).

There were two major league standouts: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (fiction), a novel that takes place during WW2, from alternating perspectives of a young French girl who is blind, and a German boy who becomes a soldier (at age 16) even though he doesn’t believe in the Nazi creed. Short compelling chapters made for several fine afternoons of reading on the front porch.

The other particularly notable book of June was Things That Are, by Amy Leach. One could call these nature essays, or one could call them flights of fancy. They could also qualify as prose poetry; the writing is often playful and sometimes humorous, delightful and whimsical. I also learned a lot about sea cucumbers and jellyfish.

I’ve been tending the garden, harvesting rhubarb, blueberries, and calendula and just starting to see raspberries. I opted out of growing any vegetables this year, since with the exception of tomatoes I tend to fail miserably. More room for rosemary and chamomile!

A major highlight of June was seeing South Pacific at the Guthrie Theater. I had never seen it before (either the play or the movie) and it was wonderful! I knew many of the songs, including “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” which I associated with Clairol hair coloring, but not a musical. Good humor and great dancing. I Love the Guthrie; it rarely disappoints.

Minor highlights: I got rid of several more bags of books (what a good feeling!); of course this makes room for more books, which is also a good feeling. One of my favorite restaurants closed—Le Town Talk Diner. A sad day. And I continued my haiku postcard project (a haiku a day, sent on postcards to my friend in Montana)—nearly three years now! Here are some of my favorites from June:

another bag gone
gently used books seek new home,
a new adventure

adieu Le Town Talk
you have loved and served us well
I will miss your quiche

out the front window
two swallowtail butterflies
in the lilac tree

award-winning books
just a few days to finish
six hundred pages

Happy summer and good reading!